Nothing can ruin the happy glow of gift giving faster than a child whining about not getting what they wanted. The slap of ingratitude is particularly sharp around the holidays when charity and thankfulness are at a premium and stress and money worries are running high. Worse still is when a child lacks gratitude in front of seldom-seen relatives. But parents should take a breath and understand holidays set kids up for disappointment. The fix for ingratitude lies in preparation, some empathy and a good deal of practice.
“You have to understand from a kids perspective what happens with the holiday season,” explains Dr. Laura Markham author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. “It’s pretty unfair that we make it about presents for them and then we think they’re being bratty and ungrateful because they make long lists about what they want.”
The trick, then, is in managing a child’s expectations around the season. That starts with helping them gound the holidays in the roots of cultural traditions. For religious minded families, this is fairly simple, according to Markham. It’s a matter of having a conversation about what the holiday really means. “Younger kids might say, ‘we get to see grandma or grandpa,’ but anyone over the age of 5 will say ‘presents,’” Markham explains. This is when parents can offer a correction, letting kids know that “part of the joy of the holiday is exchanging presents with each other, but actually what we’re celebrating is the love in our family, or the deliciousness of our faith.”
The idea is to help a child understand the difference between getting presents and being in each other’s presence. Markham suggests that parents lean into the idea of communal generosity, by building rituals around giving and volunteerism rather than the act of getting. In a way, this helps take the edge off the holiday’s direct link to a child’s desire and creates a path towards priming a kid for what they will receive.
Different families have different giving traditions. These should be talked over with the kid well before any gift giving starts. Parents should remind them of what they know they’ll get: an annual holiday book, some clothing, a toothbrush in the stalking. Then they can start talking about the one holiday gift that they want. According to Markham, parents need to be very transparent about budgets. If something is off the table, then a kid needs to know why. Parents can them look for something more reasonable but just as fun. As long as it’s done with empathy.
“They should be allowed to be disappointed,” Markham contends. “It doesn’t mean they’re an ungrateful brat. It means they don’t understand the value of money. They might even need time to grieve.” Besides, what adult hasn’t grieved that they had to forgo a premium purchase for something just a bit more down to earth?
And after all of that, if a child is still disappointed when a gift is received, parents should take it in stride. These things happen. Signals get crossed. Disappointments happen. “Kids get this whole fantasy in their head and what it’s going to be like, and nothing can actually fulfill those fantasies,” says Markham. But that doesn’t mean that parents can’t give them an abundance of love and care.
Of course, when families add grandma and her gift of a pink bunny suit into the mix, even a hint of ingratitude can make a parent snappy. But in this case, practice makes perfect. There’s nothing wrong with a little coaching and role play. And when the box is opened to discover whatever bizarre gift gran has bought, parents can jump in before a kid says anything and lead them towards a hug and a thank you. After all, Markham stresses, in the end, it’s about the presence and not the presents.